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What's the best way to get to Marine Midland Arena from the Niagara Thruway, coming from Canada, Niagara Falls or the Tonawandas?

Most people would say the Elm Street exit.

But a month-old sign on the Thruway sends motorists onto the Louisiana Street exit -- which bypasses downtown, adds roughly a mile to the route and leaves out-of-towners with no clue how to get to the arena.

What may seem like a trivial issue to some has become a real sore point with a group of about 30 downtown parking-lot and restaurant owners. They believe the sign steals their business, funneling out-of-towners -- especially Canadians -- into Marine Midland Arena parking lots and into the arena for dinner and a few drinks.

James T. Sandoro, who owns parking lots on Seneca and Exchange streets, thinks the current Louisiana Street sign weakens the whole purpose of putting the Marine Midland Arena where it is.

"What good was it putting it there, if it's not going to impact the parking lots, the restaurants and the few retail stores we have?" Sandoro asked. "What good did it do putting public money in it, if it's not going to benefit the city?"

City officials and the Sabres, however, replied Thursday that taking at least some vehicles off the Elm Street exit onto Louisiana Street, even if it's a longer route, eases the flow of congestion on game nights.

Sabres President Larry Quinn said that taking Louisiana Street to either Perry Street or South Park Avenue can save significant time for anyone approaching the arena soon before a Sabres game.

"I don't think this is an issue other than showing motorists another (easier) way to get to the building," Quinn said.

At issue are two signs on the southbound Niagara Thruway, next to the exit to the Skyway. One tells motorists about the upcoming Elm Street exit, with no mention of the arena. The other, at least twice as large, says, "Exit 5. Louisiana St. Marine Midland Arena. 1 Mile."

No one's quite sure why the new sign, erected by the New York State Thruway Authority, cites Louisiana Street as the primary route to the arena.

"Somehow, there was a misunderstanding between the city, the Thruway Authority and the Sabres that led to the only southbound sign leading people to Louisiana Street," city engineer Daniel E. Kreuz said. "We're in the process of working with the Thruway Authority to resolve this in the immediate future."

Stephen T. Banko III, a spokesman for Mayor Masiello, said the city plans to ask the Thruway Authority in writing, as early as today, to have signs directing Marine Midland Arena traffic to either Elm or Louisiana Street.

"That way, no one will be accused of favoritism or tracking people into anyone's parking lots," Banko said.

Sandoro wants the Louisiana Street sign removed, or the Marine Midland Arena reference covered.

It's common marketing strategy, he said, to send people "through the gift shop" on their way out of any tourist attraction.

"We're not taking them through the gift shop," he added. "We're sending them out the back door."

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, agreed with Sandoro that the current sign hurts downtown businesses.

"Tens of thousands of people will be traveling from Southern Ontario and all across the region to a Sabres game, a concert or the Catholic Church's anniversary Mass," he said. "We need to send a message to every one of these visitors that Buffalo is a user-friendly community."

Hoyt has contacted the Thruway Authority to ask why Elm Street isn't listed as an exit for the arena.

"I don't think it would be inappropriate to have a sign that says, 'Marine Midland Arena -- Next Two Exits.' " the assemblyman said.

But Sandoro rejected that compromise.

"That's unacceptable to us," Sandoro said, threatening to seek an injunction to have the Marine Midland Arena reference covered up on the Louisiana Street sign.

Sandoro listed 12 reasons for removing or covering the sign, including these:

The Louisiana Street exit takes traffic half a mile farther, then forces it to double-back at least another half-mile to the arena.

The Elm Street exit contains several options: going east on Seneca Street and onto Exchange Street, or continuing on Elm to Swan Street, with access to Michigan Avenue or Washington Street.

Concerns that the Louisiana Street exit plan, which sends traffic through a residential area, wasn't included in the arena's environmental study.

Anyone not familiar with the area would have no idea where to go after exiting on Louisiana Street, since no follow-up signs have been erected. One option involves a very difficult left turn onto Michigan Avenue.

The city, however, is expected to put up its own "guide signs," showing motorists how to get to the arena once they get off at either exit.

While the apparent compromise solution didn't appease Sandoro, Hoyt hopes the whole dispute can be settled.

"We shouldn't let a petty squabble like this get in the way of what's best for the community," he said.

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